A Gentle Invitation into the Challenging Topic of PrivilegeThe notion that some might have it better than others, for no good reason, offends our sensibilities. Yet, until we talk about privilege, we’ll never fully understand it or find our way forward.Amy Julia Becker welcomes us into her life, from the charm of her privileged southern childhood to her adult experience in the northeast, and the denials she has faced as the mother of a child with special needs. She shows how a life behind a white picket fence can restrict even as it protects, and how it can prevent us from loving our neighbors well.White Picket Fences invites us to respond to privilege with generosity, humility, and hope. It opens us to questions we are afraid to ask, so that we can walk further from fear and closer to love, in all its fragile and mysterious possibilities.
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About the Author
Amy Julia Becker lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children. She is the author of several books, including the award-winning A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny.
Read an Excerpt
LIFE IS A GIFT
I only hear her speak Spanish. We lie side by side in the hospital, a white curtain pulled tight between us. I never see her face. I see the scuffed sneakers and blue jeans of the kids who I assume are her older children. I hear the cadence of their voices and pick out words I learned years ago: Hola, Mamá ... Tranquila ... ¡Qué linda!
We have both just given birth at Yale New Haven Hospital, and we are lodged here together temporarily, until private rooms open up. I am warm and exhilarated and grateful, as if waves of light are pouring over me. Marilee lies in my arms, bundled and asleep. Peter has stepped out to buy lunch and to greet my mother when she arrives with our older children, Penny and William. I gaze out the window on my side of the room. The barren winter landscape stands in direct opposition to my emotions — the gray sky looks almost white with cold, the gray water of Long Island Sound lies flat in the distance.
A midwife comes in, one I haven't met before. She has short brown hair, and her whole body looks efficient: shirt tucked in, clipboard in hand, glasses pushed firmly in place on her nose. "This is your third child?"
I smile down at Marilee's round face and murmur, "Yes."
"Have you considered an IUD?" she asks. Something in her tone puts me on alert.
"Um," I say, "no, I haven't."
"Do you use contraception?" I can't tell if she is bored or annoyed.
"All three of my pregnancies were planned, if that's what you're asking," I say.
"Well, you might want to consider an IUD. It would protect you from pregnancy for five years, though it wouldn't protect you from sexually transmitted diseases."
I feel like a little kid receiving a reprimand for breaking a rule I hadn't known to obey. Her eyes seem to narrow into a glare. I glance down at Marilee's peaceful face again, take a deep breath, and remind myself that I have done nothing wrong in bringing this child into the world.
"Thank you for the information," I say.
As if we were in a standoff and she has conceded, she nods with a quick bob of her head, turns on her heel, and leaves. An orderly comes in to move me to a different room a few minutes later, and soon after that, Penny and William peek around the doorframe to see their baby sister for the first time. William, two and a half, wears a button-down shirt and a charcoal gray sweater, his face stern with the responsibility of touching his sister's cheek. Penny, who has just turned five, kisses Marilee's feet again and again, her eyes wide, her face holding a perpetual smile at the excitement of a new member of the family. They bring cupcakes and we all sing "Happy Birthday" to their new baby sister.
After they go home with my mother, I review the day in my mind, as if replaying the events of the past twenty-four hours will cement them in my memory. I think back to the contraction that woke me at 3 a.m., the call to my aunt and uncle to stay with the kids until Mom could arrive. I trace the route to the hospital, the dark empty streets, the serious expression on Peter's face with both hands on the steering wheel, the reminder to myself to breathe. The pain of labor and delivery has already become imprecise, a rivet of hardship filled in by the sweetness, the joy, the embrace, the blessing, yes, the blessing of Marilee's bare body curled upon my chest, her breathing steady, her eyes closed. Today was the third time I have given birth. With Penny, the nurses swaddled her and handed her to me, but soon took her out of my arms for testing. Two hours later, the doctors diagnosed her with Down syndrome, and the warmth and light of her birth seeped away, replaced, for a time, by fear. With William, I was so depleted from the all-night struggle to bring him into this world that I didn't have the strength to hold him. But with Marilee, there is no drama. We lie together, content, skin against skin. Blessing.
I move in my memory from the delivery room to the temporary room with the woman speaking Spanish from the bed behind the curtain. I will never see her again, but I feel connected to her. Our children share a birthday. Our bodies share the knowledge of intensity and wonder and welcome. Although I do not even know her name, I try to imagine her life. I conjure up a person based on an incongruous amalgamation of her kind voice and the statistics I have read about the city's Hispanic population. Peter is a graduate student at Yale right now, and I know from his remarks that the public schools in the city are struggling, that the poverty rate is high, that unemployment is high as well. I have read university security warnings about gunshots a few blocks from the campus and incidents of theft and sexual assault and murder.
I wonder if this woman's story fits into the demographic picture the reports have painted. How many children does she have? What kind of home are they living in? Would she welcome the news of an IUD, or would it come to her as an affront, a suggestion of incompetence or irresponsibility, as it had to me? My doctor later tells me that city hospitals make a point of talking with women about permanent birth control as soon as they've gone through labor. It helps avoid unwanted pregnancies, abortions, the financial distress of too many mouths to feed. It wasn't a conversation designed with you in mind, my doctor says.
Marilee's life stretches out in front of me. I know from experience the tedium that will come — the cries that cannot be comforted, the sleep that cannot be restored, the toenails to cut and diapers to change and the constant attentiveness required. But right now, the future is a promise — the wonder of discovering who this little person is becoming, of hearing her giggle for the first time, of watching her eyes follow her big brother and sister around the room, of feeling her soft breath and holding her close in the middle of the night, of swaying and rocking and giving of myself for her comfort, her peace.
I don't know the details yet — that Marilee will grow up to be my barefoot girl, the one who will toss her shoes and socks to the side even when the ground is frozen, or that she will have the gift of hospitality, always looking for ways to welcome a stranger into our midst. I do not know that she will spread her arms wide and rock her whole body with exuberance in the face of the smallest joys, or that her skin will become splotchy with hives after she experiences grief for the first time. I do not know that she will come up with a nickname for me, Mossy, or that the bridge of her nose will be covered with freckles in the summer, or that she will have trouble sitting still. But I know that her particular life is a gift, just like all the other babies born here today.
It comes across as a trite saying, a cliché: Every life is a gift. It prompts the questions I first asked in late-night conversations as a teenager: What about the lives that come into the world unwanted? What about the poor, the medically fragile, the refugee, the mentally ill — the lives that take up a disproportionate amount of time, money, attention? What about the ones like Penny, the ones who may never live independently, who may never participate through production in our consumer economy?
On the night Penny was born, when the contours of the future had become blurred by her diagnosis, a nurse came into the room. Peter's breathing had slowed as he slept in the pullout chair next to me. But I lay on my side, vaguely sore, replaying the events of the day. The nurse, an African American woman with a sturdy frame, said, "I had a special child too."
I made eye contact. "How old is your child now?"
"He died a long time ago," she said. Her voice stayed peaceful, but I felt the flutter of panic inside my chest. Her words named the very loss that terrified me.
"I'm sorry," I said, swallowing hard.
She shook her head, as if I didn't understand. "He was a gift," she said. And then she turned and left the room.
It took years for me to receive the truth of her simple statement. She wasn't saying he was a gift in spite of his needs. Or he was a gift in spite of his death. He was a gift. Pure and simple. Like the orphaned child and the premature baby and the little girl who will go to foster care tomorrow. Like the baby born to wealthy investment bankers. Like the baby born into poverty. Like Penny. Like William. Like Marilee, this little girl breathing so quickly and peacefully, heart pumping with the ferocity of life, eyelids fluttering, pink lips opening ever so slightly. A gift.
A hospital volunteer knocks and enters. We need to fill out forms — one for her birth certificate, Marilee Fuller Becker. Another to decline official photographs from the hospital's photographer. Another to review the experience — the check-in procedure, the nursing staff 's demeanor, the décor of the room, the food. And then she gives me a book. It is a board book with a red cover, with what look like cutout bunnies on front. "This is for you and your baby," the lady says. "As a part of an early literacy program we've started." She hands me one more piece of paper. "If you fill this out, we'll send you another book when she turns one."
I overthink it: We have dozens, if not hundreds of books at home. We don't need this organization to spend money on us. But I believe in what they're offering me here. I want to applaud the effort, to demonstrate to donors that new mothers will welcome any support we are given to teach our children. I fill out the form, shaking my head at my ability to turn everything into a problem.
I think again about the woman from the bed next to mine, and I wonder how I would feel if our roles were reversed. I don't know if she only speaks Spanish, but it was the only language I heard, so I assume Spanish feels most natural to her. If I were raising my children in a different country, what would it feel like for me to try to read a picture book out loud? Perhaps they offer these books in Spanish, but I wonder — Would this mother be able to read this book to her baby? Would the words feel unfamiliar on her tongue?
We read to Penny and William most nights before bed, and I always think of those books as a bridge, a point of connection to other times and places and peoples. But, at the moment, this book feels like a wall, a subtle construction that separates me as a mother from the mother in the bed next door, like the curtain that separated us from seeing each other's faces. It is easy for me to read to my children. Easy for me to delight in the words, with my college degree in English literature. Easy for me to pass the building blocks for reading along to my children before they even go to school. Will the gift of one book do anything to help a mother in need?
I am well on my way to pitying this anonymous woman when I remember that five years earlier, when Penny was born, I was the mother in need. My college education and white skin and financial security did nothing to prepare me for the news that our daughter had Down syndrome. If anything, those marks of my social position brought with them unacknowledged expectations that life would be easier for us. I had never realized how wealth and education and all the unspoken benefits that accompany whiteness stood as barriers against Penny's diagnosis, walls that I thought protected me from vulnerability, from suffering, from discomfort, from fear, walls that kept me from understanding that life is both fragile and full of beauty in all its forms.
With the words Down syndrome, we moved from a category of self-sufficient parents into a category of parents eligible for significant social support. We needed far more than a program offering us a book. We needed therapists and specialized doctors and, eventually, public preschool with specialized teachers. We also needed friends and family and a church community to pray for us and bring us dinners and rejoice that our daughter — our needy, vulnerable, beautiful daughter — had been born. That web of support, from individuals to community organizations to state programs, held us up and eventually helped us move from a place of fear and sorrow to a place of joy. We were given what we needed to care for Penny, to see her thrive, even. She learned sign language. She learned to walk. She charmed everyone she encountered with her big eyes, her wide smile, and her habitual happy greeting — a wave and a breathy exclamation of "Hi!"
Marilee wriggles in my arms and interrupts my memories. Her little mouth puckers even though her eyes stay closed tight. I lift her toward my breast and begin the awkward attempt to feed her. My womb contracts as she suckles for a few minutes and falls asleep. The pain in my abdomen persists, and as much as I wish I didn't need to endure it, I also marvel at the way nourishing this little one is part of putting my body back together again, part of the painful, restorative act of healing. I nudge her awake but soon she sleeps again.
Just a few months earlier, when I was pregnant, I wrote an article for the New York Times parenting blog about my decision not to screen for Down syndrome with this third pregnancy. I had a higher chance of having another baby with Down syndrome, but our experience with Penny and other people with disabilities had convinced us that we would gratefully receive any child we were given. When I explained my reasoning in print, the comments poured in. Many came as affirmations of the path we had chosen. But many people criticized my decision. They even chastised me for it. To bring a child with Down syndrome into the world, some wrote, was unethical, in light of the suffering the condition would bring to the child, the burden it would place on the child's family, and the cost society would have to bear.
I hand Marilee to Peter and shift slowly to the side of the bed. My body is still bleeding. My flesh is still filled with fluid and fat and nutrients intended to sustain her life. I shuffle to the bathroom, my mind lingering on the responses to the New York Times article, to all those who wrote that it would be better not to have people with disabilities among us. This utilitarian logic used to make a certain amount of sense to me. Now I see it as a mirage. Like any utopian vision of independence and autonomy and health and happiness for all, it exists only as long as we eliminate the lives that involve need. As long as we prevent weakness from entering the world. But to eliminate weakness is to eliminate us all. Penny has helped me to recognize my own neediness, my own limitations, my own humanity. And she has helped me begin to see that even the people most different from me have gifts to offer.
I glance in the bathroom mirror. The harsh light draws attention to the dark lines under my eyes, my pasty skin, my unplucked eyebrows, and my dreary hair pulled back in a ponytail. I smile at myself. Every life is a gift, I think.
Penny has introduced me to the lives and stories of countless others with intellectual disabilities, hundreds of thousands, millions, the world over. I used to think a satisfying life of purpose was available only to people like me — self-sufficient, intellectual, able-bodied, affluent people. I have started to see that a satisfying and purposeful life is available to all, especially once we recognize our need for one another. As I slowly make my way toward the bed, I think back to the time a teenager with Down syndrome sat with William — my fussy, colicky baby boy — and with her calm presence brought more peace to his body than I had ever seen before. Or to my friend Elisa, whose daughter with an intellectual disability helps time slow down in their family as she walks through their days with gratitude and peace instead of busyness and anxiety. I remember people I have read about over the years — the seminary students who live with adults with intellectual disabilities and grow to love and serve one another, the mother who writes about the profound wisdom and beauty of her adult child who needs constant physical care, the testimony of men like Jean Vanier or Henri Nouwen, who lived among people with Down syndrome and received gifts of love and acceptance they had never encountered elsewhere.
These stories leave me confident that even the individuals who appear broken by social standards are no more or less broken than I am, no more or less capable of contributing to our world, even if people like me have never learned to value their gifts. The inability to recognize that value is a failure on my part — a failure of imagination and of vision. When I refuse to see myself as sharing my humanity with people with Down syndrome, with people whose bodies function differently than my own, with people of a different ethnicity or skin color or socioeconomic status, I cut myself off from seeing my own need. As I weave a web of invulnerability, I cut myself off from allowing others to love me. The logic of self-sufficiency is a logic of loneliness. I understand the pragmatic argument that life with an intellectual disability is a burden to the self and the society, but I have begun to see that reasoning for what it is — a barren landscape, a desert.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "White Picket Fences"
Copyright © 2018 Amy Julia Becker.
Excerpted by permission of NavPress.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword: Strangers at the Gate xiii
1 Life is a Gift 1
2 Mirrors and Doors 15
3 The Good Old Days 31
4 A History of Cancer 41
5 Banal Evils 53
6 The Rotation of the Earth 67
7 Insidious Irony 83
Privilege Walk 99
8 Blessed 105
9 Looking Up 119
10 Beloved 133
11 Possibilities 145
12 Necessary Action 157
13 To Act Justly 171
14 A Reversal 185
Questions for Discussion 197
About the Author 213
What People are Saying About This
Through Amy Julia’s raw and vulnerable story-telling, I discovered not only the harm my own privilege has caused but also a God-birthed desire to actively engage in reconciliation and healing. Captivating and deeply personal, White Picket Fences is Amy Julia’s best work yet.
A writer of beauty, bravery, and compassion takes on a topic as searingly painful as it is depressingly timely. As she shares her own journey so unsparingly, Becker nudges readers toward self-reflection, inspiring hope for new beginnings and opening hearts to healing.
Amy Julia is an exceptionally skilled writer, no doubt about that. But what I admire most about this book is that she is opening herself up to being raked over. She doesn’t have to do it. Nevertheless, it is obvious she believes that coming to terms with white privilege and naming it for what it is matters more to her than her reputation. She doesn’t shy away from the good, the bad, and the ugly of her privileged upbringing. While gentle and beautiful, this book is hard-hitting and will force us to confront the truth about our history. The question is: Will we?
A deeply human book. As a woman who shares many of Becker’s advantages, I’ve been immensely helped, by Becker’s words, to begin believing that God can use our sufferingand our privilegefor good.
White Picket Fences bravely confronts privilege whilst challenging readers to do the same. As Becker gets personal with her reader, she offers more than perceived answers: She offers space and grace. At a time when allies continue to peel back the layers of privilege in their lives, White Picket Fences is timely!
Without shaming or victimizing, Becker considers painful truths and beautiful possibilities for healing the divisions of our present moment.
If there were ever a writer who can wrest beauty out of deep complexity and pain, it is Amy Julia Becker. Written with elegant honesty, her new book explores the burden of privilege and the responsibility and call to steward it well. I’m grateful for Becker’s willingness to wade into deep waters and to emerge from them with a timely vision of human flourishing for all.
As a white mother of black children, this topic is nuanced and highly personal for me. Amy Julia masterfully created a safe space for my heart to explore what has otherwise felt like a loaded subject. This is a book for every thoughtful soul.
I want to read every word Amy Julia Becker writes. No one I know captures so completely the ache and the joy of being human. White Picket Fences is her most compelling book yet, tackling one of the thorniest topics of our time and illuminating it with honesty, humility, and hope. Privilege so often involves a conspiracy to forget, and this book gently, unflinchingly insists that we remember. But it also helps us believe that in a world so often torn by violence and indifference, love can still have the last and best word.
Discussing the reality of privilege is both uncomfortable and essential. In White Picket Fences, Amy Julia Becker explores this critically important topic without being heavy-handed or didactic. I was pulled in from page one by Amy Julia’s writing, which is warm, honest, and inviting as she beautifully explores her own life and story of privilege. Compelling, wise, and vital.
Amy Julia Becker allows us to enter an importantbut not easyspiritual journey of awakening and enlightenment. Beautifully and elegantly written in prose that does not allow us to shrink from a painful reality, Becker challenges us to move out of the stagnant state of “benign” racism. Without “white-explaining,” Becker presents a convincing story of everyday privilege, a disruption of that privilege, and a necessary transformation.
It takes a special kind of writera special kind of personto write about privilege in a vulnerable way. Amy Julia Becker is exactly such a writer and such a person. Becker offers an unflinching examination of what obligations and obstacles come with privilege in a world marred by so many injustices done to those without the advantages many of us take for granted. White Picket Fences is a must-read for all who wish to break down the barriers that divide our communities and our nation today.
Renouncing privilege isn’t always possibleor even desirable. In White Picket Fences, Amy Julia enters this conversation with wisdom and candor, inviting the reader to consider the transforming power of grace and gratitude to direct what we’ve been given to do the work of love.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I can’t say enough about how this book challenged me and continues to challenge me. Thought-provoking, honest, and powerful, White Picket Fences has redefined the way I think about my own life. Amy Julia Becker addresses privilege as a subject that has been particularly divisive in our society, and yet she shows how we can come together—how we need to come together—to move past these divisions and realize our common humanity in order to experience it more fully. Without making it seem trite or cliché, she argues the answer to this division is love. I’ll be reading this book again and again to ensure every bit of Becker’s wisdom sticks with me.
"And now, as I confront the harm to me, to my friends and family, and to countless others by a social structure that has been built on exclusion, do I want to get well?" It's a loaded question author Amy Julia Becker asks. I didn't choose to read this book because I think I'm the target audience for it. I'm not. But I was interested in hearing this author's perspective. Yet, when it comes to those who are the closer targets for this book, it will likely require some "pushing past" to even pick it up and open it. Pushing past the indifference or skepticism that says privilege isn't a big deal, or that it might not be a real thing, or that it's merely a divisive or hot button term attached to a political agenda. Pushing past the fear-based discomfort that says to just ignore it, or the fear-based hopelessness that says privilege is so longstanding, so ingrained, and so prevalent that there's no point in trying to change things now. If you are indeed someone who flinches at the mention of privilege, know that this isn't a book meant to demonize you. To make you feel guilty about your skin color or for being born to a particular social status. And be advised that the author doesn't limit her discourse here to the subject of race. It feels a little severe to call it a "discourse," though, and it almost seems out of place to say I enjoyed it. But for someone who mostly reads fiction, this book often made me feel like I could have been reading an understated but affecting contemporary novel. Becker has a lovely writing style, and she addresses tough, complex issues with grace and nuance. A book well worth pushing past discomfort to read. __________ Tyndale House provided me with a complimentary copy of this book from NavPress for an honest review.
White Picket Fences is a gentle, engaging and humble segue into talking about the very difficult subject of privilege. It is an invitation to look with Amy Julia at privilege through a new set of lens and different set of questions. She does so in a transparent, vulnerable and genuine way. WPF keeps your attention through out every chapter, making it hard to put down and leaving one with lingering questions to explore.
As the world considers very tangibly whose voices matter, this book engages readers in an important and honest conversation about how people gain and give value. Amy Julia shares her own stories to expose that when societies are divided by privilege, both the privileged and the underprivileged suffer. I think this book can help move us forward in these discussions and in trying to formulate a response. A wonderful and thought provoking read!
This book not only broadened my understanding of privilege but why privilege can be harmful. How can we work toward "a way to understand identity that allows for diversity and particularity without necessitating division"? Amy Julia doesn't claim to have all the answers (which I appreciate), but rather gets the conversation started. She doesn't only explore what we can do as individuals, but what we can do and be together as we turn toward love.
What I appreciate so much about this book is how thoughtfully it has been written. The issues of privilege that Amy Julia wrestles with are complicated and yet she dives in with great care and with vulnerability and bravery. Anyone reading this book, regardless of where they fall on the privilege spectrum, won't walk away with all the answers, but I think with a stronger desire to do the next right thing when it comes to bridging the divides in our culture. It's definitely a book that will stick with you long after you finish the last page.
This book is a page turner AND full of important topics (I love it when I find a book that has both components)! I know I was personally challenged as I read the book and engaged with topics from privilege (and how it can harm and isolate those who have it in addition to through who do not), to race (and how this affects neighborhoods, education, opportunity, etc), to self-medicating and other ways we cope in our isolation, to becoming better listeners, to engaging where we can. I am left with an increased openness to consider the questions of our day (and I recognize that many of the current questions are timeless, such as the question/origin of human worth). These topics are heavy, but I was not left without hope for a better way forward, even if that path isn't always the easiest to discern and will necessarily take time, sacrifice and love.
"I want this story to open up the conversations we are afraid to have, to prompt the questions we are afraid to ask, and to lead us away from fear and toward love, in all its fragile and mysterious possibilities." As a white middle class college-educated millennial woman who grew up in a wealthy (and primarily white) Boston suburb, I am aware of my privilege and have been wrestling with it for some time. Amy Julia gave me space and language in White Picket Fences to reckon with my upbringing and "stand in the discomfort of the grief and gratitude of who I am as a child of privilege." She challenged me in how much I still have to learn, and how facing the evil and injustice in our society, the marginalization, racism, ableism, etc requires all of us to be willing to do deep (and sometimes painful) heart work within ourselves, be humbled, and come together as community in order to see change. As usual, Amy Julia's beautiful story-telling drew me in, and I am so grateful for her willingness to share from her personal experiences. I found her tone to be challenging, but not shaming, which I so appreciated, as so often this conversation can feel like people shouting at each other. Overall, a brave and honest reckoning with privilege, at a time when we need it more than ever.